Spoons and other weird Appalachian instruments (and where to hear them)
That weird sound you hear in your favorite Appalachian tune? It’s probably weirder than you think!
Appalachian music— which includes bluegrass, old-time, folk and more— is one of West Virginia’s most unique features. Its roots go back to early backcountry settlers who brought their passed-down tunes from Ireland, Scotland and England here to the hills with simple instruments.
Those instruments are fascinating. They all needed to be basic, easy to build or repair, and portable (most early mountain settlers couldn’t afford or haul around a piano or organ, obviously). They came from a variety of cultures, and most of them weren’t even what we would call “standard” instruments, but rather improvised out of existing tools and objects of rural life.
Here are the stories of 7 Appalachian instruments that are common throughout the Mountain State, but quite a bit more unique than your standard guitars and fiddles.
How many have you heard?
This instrument is about as simple as it gets. Take 2 spoons, pinch them between your fingers so that their backsides are facing each other, and then slap them against your thigh or other hand for a distinct, percussive “click.” Sounds easy, right?
Actually, it’s pretty darn tough to play spoons well. A good player can keep the beat as simple as a finger snap before busting into double-time triplets that sound like a tap dancer just hit the floor.
The banjo originated from stringed instruments with gourd bodies that were brought over by African slaves. Like the mandolin, the banjo is not incredibly unique these days (it’s prominent in bluegrass and even mainstream country music), but the niche that it has carved out in mountain music is special.
In the West Virginia mountains, you’re more likely to hear a unique style of banjo playing called “clawhammer.” This style involves strumming down with your fingers, rather than the more common up-picks that most banjo players use. The result is a more subtle, soft, earthy feel to the banjo. It simply sounds more Appalachian.
Want to hear all these different mountain instruments? West Virginia has some amazing festivals to highlight our musical heritage. Check out the West Virginia State Folk Festival in Glenville or the world-famous Appalachian String Band Festival at Camp Washington-Carver.
3. Washtub bass
Spoons and washboards are great for adding a clicking beat to mountain music. But they don’t do much for the low thumping that a big bass drum would do in more percussion-heavy music.
Drums have never been widespread in traditional mountain music— for the low end, it’s always been about the bass. The standard for bluegrass, of course, is the big upright bass fiddle. But basses were (and still are) expensive and hard to transport. So like the spoons and the washboard, musicians found a household replacement with the single-string washtub bass.
Washtub basses are a bit more complicated than spoons or washboards, but still easy to make. You simply attach a thin cord to the middle underside of a big metal washtub, and tie the other end to a broomstick. Brace the stick on the ground and hold it like the neck of a bass, then pluck the single string while you keep a foot on the tub to adjust the tension and pitch.
They actually sound really amazing!
4. Mountain dulcimer
As the name suggests, this unique instrument was born right here in Appalachia. Its box-like construction was easier to produce in the home than the complex arched backs and tops of mandolins or fiddles.
The dulcimer, which you play on your lap, has harp-like qualities that sound a bit more airy and even spiritual than the standard plucky twang of bluegrass instruments, and its music is wholly unique.
If you want to hear or learn to play the dulcimer, check out the annual Fort New Salem Dulcimer Festival every August in Salem, West Virginia.
Ok, now we’re moving into the realm of instruments that were definitely NOT do-it-yourself improvisations, but rather small, portable instruments that were easy to buy and learn on the frontier.
The mandolin was originally brought over by southern European immigrants. You tune its paired strings just like a violin’s. But it’s fretted like a guitar, and you pick it like one, too.
This might be the most obscure and unique instrument on the list. Traditionally Irish, the psaltery is a small harp that sits nestled in your arms, and which you play with a bow. Its sound is like a combination of a dulcimer and a violin, and hauntingly beautiful.
To hear a bit of this rare treat, stop into Tamarack “The Best of West Virginia” arts center, where Greg and Tish Westman build and play psalteries as artists-in-residence.
Yes, that kind of washboard– the ridged, flat tool that hangs on the walls of dozens of West Virginia antique stores. Like the spoons, a washboard adds high-pitched percussion to the beat of mountain music, only with less of the spoons’ “click” and more of a drawn out “rasp.”
Old-time washboard players would make their sound louder by using another common household item— thimbles— on their finger as they stroked across the ridges of the board. These days, some musicians even trick out their washboards by attaching small cymbals or woodblocks, creating a sort of Appalachian percussion set that is both inexpensive and portable.
This post was last updated on March 2, 2022